China’s top diplomat traveled to Vietnam Tuesday for talks aimed at resolving a dispute over Beijing’s deployment of an oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea, with experts predicting the two sides to hash out several key issues.
The arrival in Hanoi of Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, who outranks the foreign minister, represents the highest level bilateral contact since a Chinese state-run oil company deployed the rig to Vietnam’s coast on May 2, sparking tensions.
Yang will attend the annual meeting of the China-Vietnam Steering Committee for Bilateral Cooperation with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh on Wednesday, according to a statement by China’s Foreign Ministry.
He is also expected to meet with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the ruling Communist Party in Hanoi.
“We hope that Vietnam can bear in mind the big picture, work with China towards the same goal and properly deal with the current situation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chinying told a regular press briefing Tuesday.
Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry has said that the two sides will specifically discuss the oil rig.
Vietnam and China blame one another for repeated collisions in the oil rig area between ships from both countries, with Vietnam earlier this month releasing dramatic video footage showing a large Chinese ship chasing and ramming one of its fishing boats and causing it to sink.
Dinh Hoang Thang, Vietnam’s former ambassador to the Netherlands, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the high level meeting was sure to address a number of key issues surrounding the sea dispute.
“We all know that Yang Jiechi and Pham Binh Minh have held very tense talks over the phone before,” he said.
“If each side tries to defend their own opinions, the situation can only get worse … [Yang] holds a higher position than the [Chinese] foreign minister, so this time the dialogue is likely to address many important issues.”
Dinh Kim Phuc, a Vietnamese expert on the South China Sea, said the meeting of the Steering Committee for Bilateral Cooperation is simply “an excuse” to bring the two sides together to “solve the problem of the oil rig.”
“This is once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Vietnam to fight China,” he said.
“But if this visit … [sees] Vietnam continue to compromise with China, then I think the oil rig will not be removed, or it will simply be replaced and we will never solve the problem—meaning that Vietnam will lose the South China Sea.”
Phuc said that if Hanoi lets the issue drag on, China would be given “the green light to undermine Vietnamese sovereignty” which would possibly lead to Vietnam’s loss of its claim on the disputed and resource-rich Spratly island chain.
Yun Sun, an expert with the Washington-based Stimson Center, told RFA that China likely aims to discuss ways of decreasing tensions in the region and how the two sides might avoid confrontations in the future.
“China does try to at least present an image of a China willing to talk and a China willing to negotiate, but I doubt that actually indicates any willingness for China to make a concession or compromise on the issues of the territorial dispute,” she said.
“Yang’s visit is aimed at having some dialogue and trying to find ways to dilute and to reduce the tension, and see if there is any possibility of having a meaningful dialogue about how to move forward.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Vietnam’s former ambassador to China, General Nguyen Trong Vinh, published an open letter addressed to General Secretary Trong calling on the Communist Party to stand up for the country’s sovereignty.
“Vietnam truly believes that the two communist parties ‘have the same ideology’, so it feels very close to China and would not want to do anything to disappoint the country,” he said.
“I do not oppose maintaining friendly relations between the citizens of both nations. However, I do oppose the leadership in power of China constantly nurturing a state of obtaining what it wants through the subjugation of Vietnam.”
Vinh said that public opinion in Vietnam “has it that the [party] will not resist China’s invasion.”
He decried what he called China’s aggression towards Vietnam’s ships in the South China Sea and called on the party to join the Vietnamese people to “drastically fight” Beijing’s territorial claims politically, diplomatically and legally.
“Vietnam absolutely cannot miss this chance. If Vietnam wavers and shies away from confrontation, then the day our country becomes a part of China will not be far off,” he said.
The controversial oil rig is deployed between the Paracel islands—which are occupied by China and claimed by Hanoi—and the Vietnamese coast.
The rig’s deployment set off violent anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam last month, leaving at least four people dead and resulting in the destruction of factories believed to be operated by Chinese companies, though many were Taiwanese-owned.
Prime Minister Dung last month threatened to take legal action against China for the rig deployment.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei.
Reported by An Nguyen and Serena Doan for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.